The problem was simple. I thought I saw a rock in the heavy, rutted mud of the D29 in the Hautes-Alpes department of south-eastern France. So I looked down and lost my focus on the road ahead, forgetting the advice the BMW off-road training crew had tried to drum into me some years before: always look ahead to where you want to be, not the ground immediately in front.
Predictably enough, the front wheel of the F 700 GS promptly slipped into one of the ruts, stopped and dumped me. To add insult to injury, the ‘rock’ turned out to be an oddly shaped bit of cow dung. I know because I landed in it.
I was on a Beach’s Motorcycle Adventures tour, and the evening before Rob Beach had divided us into two groups. The sheep would cross the border between Alpes-de-Haute-Provence by way of the paved pass at Vars, while the goats – including me — would follow Rob and Gretchen through the Parpaillon Tunnel, over the gravelled D92 where I have just crashed. Not in gravel, either.
The combination of French cowpats and mud makes a particularly adhesive mixture, so when I arrived at the 2,637 metre high tunnel I was not a pretty sight. That said, I was still better-looking than the tunnel. “It is closed at either end with metal doors” says almost every reference I can find, many of them also referring to it as “the infamous Parpaillon Tunnel”.
I looked it up afterwards, of course, having no idea of what I was facing on the day from Rob’s cheerful description.
The huge metal gates were open, and the tunnel entrance looked as if it should have ‘Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch’intrate’ engraved above it. It wasn’t the entrance so much but what I could see of the road surface inside, a combination of weaving, steep gravel moraines and mud-coloured puddles of indeterminate depth.
The Col du Parpaillon, another 143 metres above the tunnel, was of military importance as long back as 219 BCE when a Roman general called Turnus was detached to stop Hannibal here. Needless to say he failed, and the pass remained important subsequently. In the 17th Century, control of the strategic Ubaye Valley on the disputed French-Italian border belonged to the nation that could first bring artillery into the valley in Spring, but the French had to cross this pass, something that was far from easy even after a military road was completed in 1694. The pass often stayed snowed in.
In 1891, the French army finally began work on the access road and tunnel. The project, part of the ‘little Maginot’ (also called ‘Alpine’) line of defense, was not completed until 1911. It was for many years the highest road in France. This late 19th Century military road connects the Fort de Tournoux complex of fortifications to Embrun and points north. Although intended as a key route for military supplies and artillery, the army then discovered that even with the tunnel, it was impassable in winter and it was abandoned in favour of the lower Col de Vars, which could be kept open in winter.
The abandoned tunnel is one of the highest in Europe. It is 520 metres in length and the approach road is not paved, or even gravelled as I had discovered, and is closed in winter.
“It’s in terrible conditions (sic). The tunnel contains a lot of ice and water and is totally dark. It can be scary, and is highly recommended to stay outside,” says one bicycle web site. “The route has fallen into disuse and roughly the top 10 kilometers of both sides are rough, stone filled roads – and the first half is very bumpy. At the high elevations part, the track becomes more tortuous, finally tightening into a seemingly endless hairpin ascent, repeatedly crossing and re-crossing a deep gully gouged by torrents of rain and meltwater cascading down to the valley floor far below,” adds another.
That all sounds pretty grim, but the scenery is spectacular. On the northern side it is mostly open grazing land, while the south has more forest. Of the tunnel entrance itself, our bicycling friends say that “The spot is both uplifting and yet desolate in its remoteness but the views along the road are breathtaking.”
‘Breathtaking’ is a good word. Not so much for the scenery, although it is impressive enough, but for the tunnel itself. The ‘road surface’ is neither road nor surfaced. As I indicated above, it is made up of heaps of gravel that twist along the tunnel floor, interrupted by sometimes deep – sometimes very deep – potholes filled with puddles of dirty water. The thick ice deposits on the walls are not reassuring, but most of the time I couldn’t see them anyway. I was following the taillight of the bike in front, and not even attempting to gauge the surface.
‘Bang’ down, ‘thump’ up, ‘sheesh!’ sideways for 520 metres. Whenever things felt difficult, I accelerated but then the taillight would get too close and I’d have to slow down, increasing the thumping. You certainly would not pass anyone in that tunnel. At the end, my muscles were so tight I could not unblock them.
But as always there was a bright side. Over dinner that night, we goats clearly felt somewhat more… experienced than the sheep. Even cow dung could not take that away.